Images in 3D space gets lift from helicopters

MIT has launched a project to create images in three dimensional space. The idea is challenging, but researchers think the ultra-tiny computing technologies exist to pull it off.
Written by John Dodge, Contributor on

Imagine pixels flying around like helicopters and coming together to form a coherent image in three dimensional space. Sounds pretty farfetched, right?

Well it still is, but researchers at MIT's SENSEable City Lab and Aerospace Robotics and Embedded Systems Laboratory (ARES Lab) think it's possible and have launched a project named Flyfire to pull it off.

Flyfire simulated image. credit: MIT SENSEable City Lab

"Flyfire uses a large number of remotely controlled, self-organizing "micro helicopters". Each helicopter contains small LEDs and acts as a smart pixel. Through digitally controlled movements, the helicopters perform elaborate and synchronized choreographies, generating a unique free-form display in three-dimensional space," according to an MIT press statement.

E. Roon Kang, a research fellow at the SENSEable City Lab who is leading the project, uses a very famous bear to describe how one of these images will be formed.

"It's like when Winnie the Pooh hits a beehive: a swarm of bees comes out and chases him while changing its configuration to resemble a beast. In Flyfire, each bee is essentially a pixel that emits colored light and reconfigures itself into different forms," he said in the press statement.

If course, it's not as simple as Pooh bear ransacking the hive and driving out the bees. The flying pixels have to be battery rechargeable LEDs that are precisely propelled and wirelessly-controlled from a single computer, according to Kang. The pixels are first cousins to "smart dust," which are extremely small networks of sensors or in Flyfire's case, pixels.

A simulated Mona Lisa in 3D space. credit: MIT SENSEable City Lab

The Flyfire concept is explained and demonstrated in an MIT video (no sounds) where the pixels are depicted as micro helicopters. The images in the video are simulated.

Creating the image in 3D space is far from a reality and is presently more of an idea of what's possible, Kang said in a phone interview.

"We have a long way to go. We can control a handful of quad rotors (four rotor helicopters), but once you scale it up, it's very challenging," he said, adding he has no timeline for when an image will be created in this way.

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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